Pakistan accused of supplying Iran and North Korea with technology for nuclear weapons

Pakistan has secretly been supplying Iran with technology crucial to the development of a nuclear weapons programme, international inspectors say. There is also evidence Pakistan has been supplying North Korea and other countries with such expertise.

Experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ­ the UN's nuclear watchdog ­ have recently uncovered a huge procurement network developed by Iran during the past 17 years to provide materials, tools and specialist knowledge.

Iran has not yet directly identified Pakistan as a supplier but reports say there is ample evidence to conclude it has provided crucial blueprints, technical guidance and equipment. Pakistan officials said yesterday that the father of its nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, regarded as a national hero for creating an "Islamic atomic bomb" to rival India, is being questioned about possible links between Pakistan and the Iranian nuclear programme.

Reports suggested he had been under house arrest for several weeks after Iran's acknowledgement that it had been using centrifuge designs apparently identical to those used in Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme.

Masood Khan, the Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman, said authorities were also interviewing several nuclear scientists working at the A Q Khan Research Laboratories. Mr Masood said: "He [Abdul Qadeer Khan] is too eminent a scientist to undergo a normal debriefing session. But some questions have been raised with him in relation to the ongoing debriefing sessions." Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Pakistan's Information Minister, said: "Some individuals may have been doing something on their own. The government of Pakistan has not authorised any transfers of sensitive nuclear technology to other countries. Only individuals are being investigated."

The investigators believe Pakistan's transfer of information happened many years ago, before General Pervez Musharraf, the present military ruler, came to power. .

General Musharraf has assured the United States that his government is not, at least "in the present time", providing nuclear secrets to countries such as Iran and North Korea, Bush administration officials said on Monday.

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, called General Musharraf's personal assurances "important" and said close co-operation between the US and Pakistan in the war on terrorism would continue, despite any transfers of nuclear technology and know-how that might have happened.

Experts said Pakistan's transfer of key information was vital to Iran. David Albright, a former IAEA inspector in Iraq and president of the Institute for Science and International Security ­ a Washington research group that has tracked Iran's nuclear progress ­ said: "The possession of detailed designs could allow Iran to skip many difficult research steps."

Until now, Islamabad has steadfastly denied allegations that it has helped Iran and North Korea, countries regarded by the Bush administration as "axis of evil" states, with atomic programmes.

Diplomats from Britain, France and Germany obtained an agreement from Iran last month to open its nuclear facilities to international inspectors. The IAEA revealed soon afterwards that Iran had been secretly manufacturing small amounts of plutonium, normally associated with nuclear weapons. Iran has denied trying to develop such weapons, saying it is only developing a supply of nuclear fuel.

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